JUDITH OF THE GODLESS VALLEY
BY HONOR WILLSIE
Author of "The Enchanted Canyon," "The Forbidden Trail," "Still Jim," "The Heart of the Desert," etc.
I LOST CHIEF SCHOOLHOUSE II OSCAR JEFFERSON III THE GRADUATION DANCE IV THE HOUSE IN THE YELLOW CANYON V THE HUNT ON LOST CHIEF VI LITTLE SWIFT CROSSES THE DIVIDE VII THE POST-OFFICE CONFERENCE VIII JUDITH AT THE RODEO IX THE TRIP TO MOUNTAIN CITY X WILD HORSES XI THE LOG CHAPEL XII THE FIRST SERMON XIII PRINCE GOES MARCHING ON XIV THE BATTLE OF THE BULLS XV THE FLAME IN THE VALLEY XVI THE TRAIL OVER THE PASS XVII BLACK DEVIL PASS XVIII ELIJAH NELSON'S RANCH XIX HOME
JUDITH OF THE GODLESS VALLEY
LOST CHIEF SCHOOLHOUSE
"To believe in a living God; to preach His Holy Writ without fear or favor; to sacrifice self that others may find eternal life; this is true happiness."
—The Rev. James Fowler.
It was Sunday in Lost Chief; Sunday and mid-winter. For the first time in nearly ten years there was to be a sermon preached in the valley and every one who could move was making his way to the schoolhouse.
Douglas Spencer drove his spurs into Buster and finished the last hundred yards at a gallop. Judith, his foster sister, stood up in her stirrups, lashed Swift vigorously over the flanks with the knotted reins and when Buster slid on his haunches to the very doorstep, Swift brought her gnarled fore legs down on his sweeping tail and slid with him. She brought up when he did with her nose under his saddle blanket. The boy and girl avoided a mix-up by leaping from their saddles and jerking their mounts apart.
"Now look at here, Jude!" shouted Douglas, "you keep that ornery cow-pony of yours off of me or I'll make you sorry for it!"
Judith put her thumb to her small red nose, and without touching the stirrups leaped back into the saddle. Then she looked calmly about her.
"First ones here!" she said complacently. "Even the preacher hasn't come."
"I suppose,"—Doug's voice was bitter—"that if I rode over toward Day's to meet Jimmy you'd have to tag!"
"I sure-gawd would. Swift would like the extra exercise."
Douglas swept Judith's thin bay mare with a withering glance. "That thing! Looks like the coyotes had been at it!"
Judith wore but one spur and this had a broken rowell, but she kicked Swift with it and Swift whirled against the nervous Buster and bit him on the cheek. Buster reared. "Take that back, you dogy cowboy you!" shrieked Judith.
Douglas brought Buster round and raised his hand to strike the girl. She eyed him fearlessly. The boy slowly lowered the threatening hand and returned her gaze, belligerently.
Prince, a gray, short-haired dog, of intricate ancestry, squatted on his haunches in the snow with his tongue between his teeth and his eyes on the two horses. Swift sagged with a sigh onto three legs. Perhaps the little mare deserved some of the aspersions Douglas and his father daily cast upon her. She was a half-broken, half-fed little mare which Douglas' father had cast off. She did not look strong enough to bear even Judith's slim weight. But as the only horse Judith was permitted to call her own, the little bay was the very apple of the young girl's eyes, and she wheedled wonderful performances from Swift in endurance and cat-like quickness.
Buster was a black which the older Spencer had bred as a cow-pony but had given up because he could not be broken of bucking. Doug had begged his father for the horse, and Buster, nervous, irritable and speedy, was a joy to the boy's sixteen-year-old heart.
Douglas sat tall in the saddle. He measured, in fact, a full five feet ten inches without his high-heeled riding-boots. He was so thin that his leather rider's coat bellowed in the wind, and the modeling of his cheekbones showed markedly under his tanned skin. His sombrero, pushed back from his forehead, disclosed a thick thatch of bright yellow hair above wide blue eyes that were set deep and far apart. His nose was high bridged, and his mouth, though still immature, gave promise of full-lipped strength in its curves.
Judith was fourteen and only a couple of inches shorter than Douglas. She was even thinner than he, but, like him, glowing with intense vitality. She had hung her cap on the pommel of her saddle and her curly black hair whipped across her face. She had a short nose, a large mouth, magnificent gray eyes and cheeks of flawless carmine. She wore a faded plaid mackinaw, and arctics half-way up her long, thin legs.
"I hate you, Doug Spencer," she said finally and fiercely, "and I'm glad you're not my real brother!"
"I don't see why my father ever married a woman with an ornery brat like you!" retorted Douglas.
"I wouldn't stay to associate with you another minute if you offered me a new pair of spurs! I'm going to meet Maud!" And Judith disappeared down the trail.
Douglas eased back in his saddle and lighted a cigarette, while he watched the distant figures approaching across the valley. The glory of the landscape made little impression on him. He had been born in Lost Chief and he saw only snow and his schoolmates racing over the converging trails.
The Rockies in mid-winter! High northern cattle country with purple sage deep blanketed in snow, with rarefied air below the zero mark, with sky the purest, most crystalline deep sapphire, and Lost Chief Valley, high perched in the ranges, silently awaiting the return of spring.
Fire Mesa, huge, profoundly striated, with red clouds forever forming on its top and rolling over remoter mesas, stood with its greatest length across the north end of the valley. At its feet lay Black Gorge, and half-way up its steep red front projected the wide ledge on which the schoolhouse stood. Dead Line Peak and Falkner's Peak abruptly closed the south end of the valley. From between these two great mountains, Lost Chief Creek swept down across the valley into the Black Gorge. Lost Chief Range formed the west boundary of the valley, Indian Range, the east. They were perhaps ten miles apart.
All this gives little of the picture Douglas might have been absorbing. It tells nothing of the azure hue of the snow that buried Lost Chief Creek and Lost Chief ranches. It gives no hint of the awful splendor of Dead Line and Falkner's Peaks, all blue and bronze and crimson, backed by myriads of other peaks, pure white, against the perfect sky.
It does not picture the brilliant yellow canyon wall which thrust Lost Chief Range back from the valley, nor the peacock blue sides of the Indian Range, clothed in wonder by the Forest Reserve. And finally, it does not tell of the infinite silence that lay this prismatic Sunday afternoon over the snow-cloaked world.
Douglas did not see the beauty of the valley, but as, far below, he saw Judith trot up to the Day's corral, he was smitten suddenly by his sense of loneliness. Too bad of Jude, he thought, always to be flying off at a tangent like that! A guy couldn't offer the least criticism of her fool horse, that she didn't lose her temper. Funny thing to see a girl with a hot temper. Ordinary enough in a man, but girls were usually just mean and spitty, like cats. A guy had to admit that there was nothing mean about Judith. She was fearless and straight like a first-class fellow. But temper! Whew! Funny things, tempers! He himself always found it hard to let go of his rage. It smouldered deep and biting inside of him and hard to get out into words. He usually had to tell himself to hit back. Funny about that, when his father was always boiling over like Judith. He wondered if her temper would grow worse as she grew older, as his father's had. Funny things, tempers! People in a temper always looked and acted fools. The guy that could keep hold was the guy that won out. Like being able to control a horse with a good curb-bit. Funny why he felt lonely. It was only lately that he had noticed it. Here was Buster and here was Prince, and here was the approaching joke of the preacher. Why then this sense of loneliness? Maybe loneliness wasn't the right word. Maybe it was longing. And for what? Not for Jude! Lord, no! Not for that young wildcat. But the feeling of emptiness was there, as real as hunger, and at this moment as persistent. Funny thing, longing. What in the world had a guy like him to long for?
A long coo-ee below the ledge interrupted his meditation. A young rider leaped from the trail to the level before the schoolhouse, broke into a gallop and slid, with sparks flying, to the door.
"Hello, Scott!" said Douglas, without enthusiasm.
"I thought Jude was here!" returned Scott. He was older and heavier than Douglas, freckled of face and sandy of hair, with something hard in his hazel eyes.
"He'd better leave Jude alone," thought Douglas, "the mangy pinto!"
There was a shriek and a gray horse, carrying a youth with the schoolmarm clinging behind him, flew across the yard and reared to avoid breaking his knees on the steps. The schoolmarm scrambled down, still screaming protests at the grinning rider. One after another now arrived, perhaps a dozen youngsters, varying in age from five to eighteen, each on his or her own lean, half-broken horse, each appearing with the same flying leap from the steep trail to the level, each racing across the yard as if with intent to burst through the schoolhouse door, each bringing up with the same pull back of foaming horse to its haunches. And with each horse came a dog of highly varied breed.
The youngsters had been racing about the ledge for some time before the grown people began to appear. The women, most of them very handsome, were dressed dowdily in mackinaws and anomalous foot covering. But the men were resplendent in chaps and short leather coats, with gay silk neckerchiefs, with silver spurs and embossed saddles.
When Judith returned with Maud Day there were thirty or forty people and almost as many dogs milling about the yard. The log school had weathered against the red wall of the mesa for fifty years. There probably was not a person in the crowd who had not gone to school there, who did not, like Judith, love every log in its ugly sides. Judith caught Douglas' sardonic gaze, tossed her curly head and urged Swift up the steps, where she looked toward the road to the Pass, shading her fine eyes with a mittened hand.
Finally she cried, "I see the preacher coming!"
"Somebody ought to go in and build the fire if we ain't going to freeze to death!" exclaimed Grandma Brown, jogging up on a flea-bitten black mule.
"He invited himself. Let him build his own fire!" cried Douglas.
Grandma pulled her spectacles down from her forehead to the bridge of her capable nose, and stared at Douglas.
"Well! Well! Doesn't take 'em long away from the nursing bottle to get smarty. Where's your father, Douglas?"
"Home with the toothache," replied Doug, flushed and irritated.
"Did he bring you up to let a stranger come to the house and build his own fire?"
"No, but it's the schoolmarm's job to build this one," replied Douglas.
"Jimmy Day, you and Doug go in and get that old stove going!" ordered Grandma.
Both boys dismounted slowly, tied their horses, and amidst a general chuckle, disappeared into the schoolhouse.
Charleton Falkner, a black-browed rider of middle age, with a heavy black mustache, turned his horse toward Grandma.
"That's right, Charleton," the old lady went on, "you come over here and help me off of Abe. I ain't going to stay out here freezing till old Fowler comes. Riding ain't the novelty to me it seems to be to the rest of you."
This was the signal for all the grown people to tie up their horses and enter the building. Shortly Douglas and Jimmy came out, and scarcely had remounted when the minister rode slowly up over the ledge. He dismounted at the door and greeted the youngsters. They replied with cat-calls. Fowler stared at the group of robust young riders, his gray-bearded face somber, then he shook his head and opened the door.
Douglas jumped from his horse and, giving the reins to Jimmy Day, he followed the minister. The people within were seated quietly, and Doug slid into a rear bench. His eyes were very bright and he watched the preacher with eager interest. Mr. Fowler dropped his overcoat on a chair and strode up to the platform, where he smiled half wistfully, half benignly at his congregation. Then he raised his right hand.
"Let us pray!" he said. "O God, help me to speak truth to these people who ten years ago laughed me from this room. Help me to open their eyes that they may behold You! Show them that they lead a life of wickedness from the babes in arms to the very aged, from—"
"Tain't any such thing!" interrupted Grandma Brown. "There you go again, after all these years!"
"If you've come here to preach old-fashioned fire and brimstone, Fowler," said Charleton Falkner, "you might as well quit now. None of us believe a word of it. We most of us think everything ends when they plant us in the cemetery yonder, that is, if they put on enough rocks so the coyotes get discouraged."
Douglas shivered. "I wonder if that's what I'll believe when I get to thinking about such things," he thought. "Hanged if I'll think of 'em till I'm old!"
"I'm with you, Charleton!" called Oscar Jefferson, rumpling his silvery hair with his soft white cowman's hand.
The Reverend Mr. Fowler leaned over the desk. "Charleton Falkner, aren't you man enough to admit that you folks here in Lost Chief lead a wicked life?"
"How do you mean, wicked?" demanded Charleton.
"I mean that you steal cattle, that you shoot to kill, that there is indecency among your children, that your young girls go unguarded and that your young men are no better than wild horses. I mean that your little girls drink whiskey. And I defy you to show me two mothers in the valley who have taught their children to pray and to walk with God."
"Aw!" sniffed Oscar Jefferson, "if that's what you've come a hundred miles to tell us, you'd better quit! That may do for foreigners and city slums, but it won't go down with the Lost Chief cowman. We're Americans, here."
"Americans!" cried Mr. Fowler. "How much does that mean?"
Jefferson rose to his full six feet. "By God, I'll tell you what it means! It means our ancestors conquered the Indians, in New England, that we fought the British in the Revolution and the rebels in the Civil War and the hombres in the Spanish-American War. It means that fifty years ago the father or the grandfather of every man in this room came out here and fought the Indians and the wolves and the Mormons—"
Charleton Falkner interrupted with his twisted smile that showed even, tobacco stained teeth. "Jeff, this ain't the Fourth of July celebration, you know!"
Jefferson somewhat sheepishly subsided to the desk on which he had been sitting.
"That's exactly why I came back!" cried the preacher. "I know that you and Lost Chief belong to the heroic early history of America. This should be a valley of old Puritan ideals. A church should stand here beside the school. You never have built a church. You never have allowed a minister to settle here. You never—"
Here Grandma Brown's brother-in-law, Johnny Brown, spoke. "I've deponed that many a time to this crowd of mavericks! You'd ought to—"
"Keep quiet, Johnny!" ordered Grandma. "Fowler, if you are going to give us a regular Bible sermon, go ahead. Otherwise, I'm going home. I can jaw, myself."
"Also, cuss some, Grandma," suggested a slow voice. Grandma did not heed.
"If you're going to preach, preach," she said to the minister.
Mr. Fowler threw his head back. "Ten years ago I let you drive me out of Lost Chief before I'd preached a sermon. God has never let me rest since, no matter where I was, and when I was re-appointed to Mountain City, before I preached my first sermon there, I came out here. You are going to have the Word of God preached to you to-day if you shoot me for it. And beware lest you come to Esau's fate for ye know how afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears."
He paused, took a Bible from his pocket and opened it.
Douglas waited tensely. The preacher looked to him as if weighted with mysterious knowledge, as if something infinitely illuminating were to issue from his bearded lips. The boy had a sudden conviction that Fowler was about to say something that would answer the longing that had so oppressed him lately. He hunched his broad, thin shoulders forward, his clear blue eyes on the preacher's face.
Fowler cleared his throat. "'Moreover, the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Now thou son of man, wilt thou judge, wilt thou hide the guilty city? Yea, thou shalt show her all her abominations.'"
He closed the Bible. "Friends, this is my message and my text. I am going to show you your abominations of crookednesses. I am going to show you that hell is yawning for such as you."
Douglas sighed. "Old fool!" he muttered. "As Grandma Brown says, she can jaw. He's lost his chance with me." He slipped out of the door, mounted his horse and nodded to the group of youngsters waiting for him. Then he urged Buster up the steps, through the door and up the aisle. The others followed him. A moment later, the schoolroom was chaos. Horses pranced over the desks. Dogs barked and fought among the horses' legs. Babies screamed. Oaths filled the air. Lost Chief rocked with laughter.
Fowler jumped upon the teacher's desk, appealing in dumb show for order. A plunging horse tipped the desk over and the minister went down among the prancing legs. In a moment he was up, and again he raised both hands in a plea for silence. Douglas, laughing gaily, twirled his lariat, and pinioned the two pleading hands, then, amidst shouts of laughter, he backed Buster from the room, drawing the minister none too gently with him.
Outside, whither the crowd quickly followed, Douglas halted and, still laughing, allowed the preacher to free his hands.
"Now go on back to Mountain City, Mr. Preacher," he cried, "and don't come back till you've learned not to scold like an old woman."
Fowler pulled on his overcoat which somebody tossed him, and mounted his horse. Then he stood in his stirrups and pointed a trembling finger at Douglas.
"Ye shall find no place for repentance, though ye seek for it with tears."
"Why should I repent?" demanded Douglas.
"Aw, run him! Run the bastard!" shouted Scott Parsons.
But Doug rode between the preacher and the threatening young rider. "Let him go, Scott. He's had enough!"
Fowler disappeared down the trail. Scott turned scowling toward Douglas, but before he could do more Judith cried, "Come on, everybody! Let's go down to the post-office and get Peter to open the hall for a dance!"
"I will if somebody brings whiskey," agreed Scott, turning his horse toward Swift.
"I'll go over to Inez Rodman's and get some if Maud will go with me," volunteered Judith.
"Let's all go to Rodman's," cried Maud.
The older people were riding slowly down the trail to the valley. The youngsters waited until the way was clear before leaving the school-yard, agreeing in the meantime that Judith and Maud should go after the whiskey while the others went to interview Peter; and the two girls departed forthwith.
"Some one besides me will have to work on Peter," said Scott. "He's sore at me. I tried to kick Sister."
"What did you do that for?" asked Jimmy Day. "Are you sick of living?"
"She bit Ginger on the shoulder. I hate that dog."
"Jude can handle Peter," said Douglas. "Come on, let's get going."
The little cavalcade moved noisily down the trail, crossed the deep snows of Black Gorge and broke into a wild race when the road opened a mile below the post-office. The horses lunged and kicked through the drifts, the dogs barked, the girls squealed, the boys shouted. The post-office lay in the middle of the valley with neither tree nor house in its vicinity. It was a square log structure, two stories high, originally an inner fort built as a final retreat from the Indians. The upper room was now used as a dance-hall. The lower floor contained the post-office, a general store, and Peter Knight's living quarters.
Peter Knight was the only outsider in Lost Chief. He had lived there a scant twenty years. No one knew whence he came, nor why. He was a man of education and an ardent lover of animals, a somewhat sardonic, very lonely man, yet somehow having more influence in the valley than any one save Grandma Brown. He showed no actual fondness for any particular person save Judith and his big mongrel wolf-hound, Sister, Sister being every inch a person! Douglas had sometimes thought that Peter showed a real interest in him, but this interest was shown almost entirely by scathing vituperations, so the boy made no attempt to form the interest into friendship.
The crowd of riders drew up at the post-office, sparks and snow flying, just as Maud and Judith lashed their horses in from the west trail. Judith waved a bottle of whiskey.
"Some providers!" cried Scott, putting out his hand for the flask. He took a pull, then passed it on. Boys and girls alike took a drink, then Scott pocketed the bottle. During this procedure, the door of the post-office opened and Peter Knight appeared.
He was about forty-five years old, very tall, very, very thin, and as straight as he was thin. Thick, closely clipped gray hair stood up straight from his forehead. His eyes were deep sunk in his head and a piercing, light blue. He possessed a belligerent chin below an obstinate lower lip and a close-cropped gray mustache. He wore a gray flannel shirt and blue denim pants turned high over riding-boots.
He watched the passing of the whiskey bottle without comment.
"Hello, Peter!" called Judith. "Will you open the hall and let us have a dance?"
"What have you been doing to your horse, Jude?" demanded Peter, eying the panting and dejected Swift.
"Nothing! I tell you what, the way you little devils treat your horses would draw tears out of a coyote. Starving 'em, beating 'em, running 'em! You ought to be thrashed, every one of you worthless young slicks."
Curiously enough, none of the group which had shown so much temerity in man-handling the preacher now attempted to reply to Peter. A great shaggy gray dog, exactly like a coyote except that she was much larger, now appeared in the door beside the postmaster. A chorus of growls and whines immediately arose from the dogs congregated among the horses.
"What happened at the schoolhouse?" asked Peter abruptly.
"You're always preaching, yourself; I suppose that's why you didn't attend," grinned Scott Parsons.
"My Yankee horse is sick," said Peter, "and I couldn't leave him. How did it go?"
"We ran him out," laughed Douglas. "We gave him a chance to give us real talk but he couldn't come across, so we roped him and ran him."
"I thought that would happen. Poor Fowler!" Peter's voice was grave.
"Listen, Peter," cried Judith, "I want to ask you a favor."
She mounted the steps and stood before the man. She was as thin as he and as straight. Peter looked down at her, still scowling.
"Now, Peter, listen! You know I love Swift and wouldn't hurt her for anything."
"Wouldn't hurt her! Haven't I told you a hundred times that running a horse through drifts like you do ruins 'em? No, don't try to soft-soap me, Judith! When you kids want a favor from me, don't come up with your horses dripping sweat in below zero weather."
He jerked Sister back into the building and slammed the door.
Judith turned. "Well, we can all go over to Inez' place. She asked us."
"Who's there?" demanded Doug.
"Nobody. She says we can dance if we want to."
There was a silence, broken after a moment by Jimmy Day. "You can't go, Maud."
"I am going if you do!" exclaimed Maud. "Make him let me go, Doug."
"What's the use of being so fussy about poor old Inez?" asked Scott. "What harm is there in a dance at her place?"
"I don't see why, if my mother don't stop me, yours should stop you," protested Judith.
"O, your mother couldn't boss a day-old calf!" said Jimmy impatiently.
"Don't you knock my mother!" shrilled Judith.
"Your mother—" began Maud.
"Dry up, Maud, or I'll smack your mouth!" ordered Douglas.
"No you won't!" cried Jimmy.
"I will, anybody that says anything against Jude's mother," returned Douglas promptly.
"Aw, if you folks are going to start fighting, as usual I'm going home," growled Scott Parsons. "Every time the crowd gets together, Jude has to start a scrap. It's getting god-awful cold, anyhow, and I've got chores to do." He spurred Ginger and was off.
"Same here!" chimed half a dozen voices, and more horses were spurred away.
Douglas glared at Judith. "Always making trouble! I should think you'd get sick of it."
"Let 'em not knock my mother, or my horse, or my dog, then," replied Judith, tossing her head.
"Your dog! Prince is my dog, miss, and don't you forget it for a minute," cried Douglas.
He spurred Buster onto the main trail which lifted gradually toward Dead Line Peak. Judith, after a pouting moment, followed him.
Except for this steady lift from seven thousand feet at Black Gorge to eight thousand feet at the base of Dead Line and Falkner's Peaks, the valley was as level as a floor. The sun was setting as the two left the post-office. Lost Chief Range, on their right, was black against fire. The snow of the valley was as blue as indigo. A gentle but bitterly cold wind rose from the east. Prince, yelping, set off after a skulking coyote. When he had disappeared beyond a distant herd grazing through the snow, Judith pushed her horse up beside Buster.
"Doug, am I any scrappier than the rest of them?"
Douglas, his cigarette hanging negligently from a corner of his mouth, nodded.
"Well, I have to be, Doug," insisted Judith.
"No, you don't. You just look for trouble, all the time. Why do you have to be?"
"Who is there to look out for me?" demanded the girl, chin in the air.
"Pshaw! You don't need a guard, do you? Besides, what's the matter with me?"
"Huh! You don't really care what happens to me. I'm not your real sister and you never forget it. I'm lonely."
Douglas gave her a curious glance. Was she, he wondered, experiencing that feeling of loneliness and longing which had been haunting him for months? He wanted to ask her about it but he could not. She laughed at him too easily.
They rode on in silence for a while, Judith's thin young body sagging dejectedly in the saddle. The lavendar twilight was gathering. White stars hung within hand touch. Prince returned to the trail and a coyote barked derisively from beyond an alfalfa stack.
"Douglas," exclaimed Judith suddenly, "if I thought when I got married, my husband would treat me like Dad does Mother, I'd never get married. Getting married in real life isn't a bit like the books show it."
Douglas grunted. "I wouldn't worry about getting married for a few years yet."
"I'm fourteen," returned Judith. "I've got a right to think about it. Don't you ever?"
"You think about girls, though," insisted Judith.
"That isn't thinking about marrying, is it?"
"What do you think about mostly, Doug?"
Douglas sighed. "It's hard to say. I've been awful sad lately. I don't know why. I think about that and I plan a lot about what I'm going to do when I finish school."
"Would you like to marry Maud Day?"
"Who's talking about marrying!" shouted Doug with sudden and overwhelming exasperation. "What makes you such a fool, Jude?"
"How can I help talking about it when it's my mother your father's so rough with. Of course, you don't care."
"I do, too, care. I think a lot of her, but he don't mean half he says."
"Well, he'd better begin to stop knocking me around when he's mad, or I'll run away."
"Especially in the winter, I suppose," sniffed Douglas, "when it would be plain suicide."
"I don't care if it's in a blizzard," insisted Judith. "When I've had enough, I'll go."
Douglas laughed. "Hanged if I don't think you would, too, Jude. You've got the nerve of a wolverine."
"I hope Dad's tooth is better," said Judith, as dim buildings and a lighted window shone though the dusk.
"Are you really afraid of Dad?" asked Douglas suddenly.
"No," replied Judith, thoughtfully, "but sometimes I hate him."
"I think he's a pretty good old scout in spite of his temper," said the boy.
"Well," admitted Judith, "I guess I do too. At least, I can see why so many women like him. He's awful good-looking. I can see that now I'm growing up."
"Growing up!" mocked Douglas.
But before Judith could pick up the gauntlet, the horses came to pause before the lighted window. Judith jumped from Swift, unsaddled her and turned her into the corral. Then she went hurriedly into the house. Douglas unsaddled more slowly, and strode toward the sheds where calves were bellowing and cows lowing.
For half an hour he worked in the starlight, throwing alfalfa to the crowding stock. It was so cold that by the time he had finished he scarcely could turn the door-knob with his aching fingers. He entered the kitchen.
It was a large room, with the log walls neatly chinked and whitewashed. An unshaded kerosene lamp burned on the big table in the middle of the room. Judith was cutting bread. The air was heavy with smoke from frying beef. A tall, slender woman, with round shoulders, stood over the red-hot stove, stirring the potatoes. She was a very beautiful, very worn edition of Judith, though one wondered if she ever burned with even a small portion of Judith's eager, wistful fires. She turned as Douglas came in and gave him a quick smile.
"Cold, Douglas?" she asked.
The boy nodded. "Where's Dad?"
"In the other room. His tooth still aches, I guess."
"Is he sore because I'm late?" asked the boy, scowling.
Judith answered with a curious jerking of her breath. "He tried to kick me. I hate him!"
Douglas grunted and marched through the inner door into the one other room of the house. It was at least twenty-five feet square. The log walls were whitewashed like the kitchen and from one of the huge pine rafters hung a lamp which shed a pleasant light on a center table. Beds occupied three corners of the room. There were several comfortable rocking-chairs, a big mahogany bureau and a sewing-machine. Over the double bed hung an ancient saber and over a low bookcase was a framed sampler. There were several good old-fashioned engravings and some framed lithographs with numerous books and piles of dilapidated magazines. Doug's father stood by the table with a book in his hand.
John Spencer at forty-six was still a superb physical specimen, standing six feet two in his felt slippers. His face, so like, yet so unlike his son's, showed heavy lines from the nostril to the corner of the mouth. Beneath his eyes were faint pouches. The thick thatch of yellow hair had lost its yellow light and now was drab in tone. His flannel shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, showed a strong neck, and the rider's belt that circled the top of his blue denim pants outlined a waist as slim and hard as Doug's.
He looked up. "What do you mean by coming in at this hour, you young hound?"
"I think I might have Sunday afternoon to myself," said Douglas sulkily.
"So do I. But that don't mean you are to have all Sunday night, too. Did you feed the calves?"
"Next Sunday you be here by five o'clock, understand?"
"Supper's ready!" called Judith.
The table was covered by a red-checked cloth. A huge platter of fried beef, another of fried potatoes, another of baking-powder biscuits, and a pot of coffee steamed on the table. John did not speak until his first hunger had been satisfied. When he received his second cup of coffee, however, he said, "Well, my tooth's better. What happened this afternoon, children?"
Judith did not reply, but Douglas, with a chuckle, told the story of Mr. Fowler's discomfiture. John and Mary shouted with laughter.
"By old Sitting Bull, it serves him right!" John wiped his eyes. "What became of him?"
"O, he beat it for the Pass!" replied Douglas.
"What did you do after that?" inquired Mrs. Spencer.
"We went up to the post-office to get Peter to let us have a dance, but there was nothing doing. He just gave us all a jaw because our horses were sweating."
"I'll bet Swift was the worst off," chuckled John.
"That's right! Pick on me!" cried Judith.
"Judith! Be careful!" protested her mother.
"Let her alone, Mary." John's blue eyes twinkled as he watched the young girl. "She's kept out of a row about as long as she can without choking."
"Some day, when you least expect it," said Judith with a little quiver in her voice, "I'm going to run away."
The others laughed.
"Where to, Jude?" asked her stepfather.
"To some place where folks like me."
"I like you, Jude!" protested John.
Judith turned to him quickly. "Why do you thrash me and kick me, then?"
"Kids have to be trained, and you are as hard bitted as Buster," answered John.
"No such thing!" Judith suddenly rose from the table. "It's just bad temper."
"Judith! Judith! Don't!" pleaded her mother.
"Let her alone!" John's voice was not angry. He was eying Judith with inscrutable gaze.
"The next time you even try to kick me, I'm going to run away."
She paused and suddenly Douglas thought, "Jude knows what real loneliness is. She's a very lonely person." He leaned forward and watched her with unwonted sympathy. She swallowed once or twice, and then went on:
"A woman, a dog, and a horse, you don't kick any of them. Peter Knight says so. Maud Day's father never kicks her. He hits her with a belt, maybe, when she doesn't get his horse quickly enough, and maybe he hits her mother when he's drinking, but that's all." Judith began to gather up the dishes with trembling fingers.
"How old are you, Judith?" asked John.
"You know. I was fourteen last spring."
"By jove, you are almost a woman grown!" John swept her with a look, then rose and went into the living room.
Douglas followed him and, sitting down on the edge of his bed, he unbuckled his spurs. John settled himself under the lamp with his book, but he did not begin to read at once.
"Yes, Doug; that girl is a woman now and she has any woman in Lost Chief beaten for beauty and nerve."
Douglas gave his father a startled glance; then he said, with elaborate carelessness, "Rats! She's just a fighting kid!"
John chuckled. "I'm glad you're still only a sixteen-year-old fool, Doug."
The boy said nothing more. He scowled and sat staring at his father long after that strenuous person was absorbed in his book. Then he kicked off his boots, pulled off his vest and trousers and crawled into bed. Not long after, Mrs. Spencer came in, glanced at her husband, sighed wearily, then she too went to bed. Judith finished wiping the dishes, sauntered in to the center table and shortly was absorbed in "Bleak House." Mrs. Spencer was snoring quietly and Douglas had not stirred for an hour when he heard his father say in a low voice:
"Jude, old girl, I'm never going to lay finger on you again."
Jude gave a little gasp of surprise. "What's happened, Dad?"
"You've happened! By jove, you've grown to be a beautiful woman!"
"Huh! Doug says I'm a homely, pug-nosed outlaw."
"Doug's a fool kid. It takes a man like me that knows women to appreciate you, Jude."
"Doug'll hear you," warned the girl.
"He's been dead for an hour. Give me a kiss, Judith."
"I don't think I will, I'm too sleepy and tired. Guess I'll go to bed!" She rose, dropping "Bleak House" as she did so.
Mrs. Spencer woke with a start. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing! I just dropped a book." Judith retired to her own corner and shortly she too was asleep.
But Douglas, new thoughts surging through his brain, lay awake long after his father had turned out the light and crawled in beside Mary. Of a sudden, he had seen Judith through his father's eyes and he found himself very unwilling to permit John to see her so. Her loneliness had assumed an entirely new aspect to him. It was the loneliness of girlhood, of girlhood without father, mother, or brother. That was what it amounted to, he told himself. He never had been a real brother to Judith, never had looked out for her as if she had been his sister. And Jude's mother! Just tired and sweet and broken, about as well fitted to cope with her fiery daughter as with the unbroken Morgan colt which was John's pride. As for his father—! Douglas turned over with a deep breath. Let his father take heed! Judith! Judith with her glowing wistful eyes, her crimson cheeks, her dauntless courage, her vivid mind! Judith, with her loneliness, was his to guard from now on. Funny how a guy could feel so all of a sudden! Funny, if he really should love old Jude, with her fiery temper and more fiery tongue. And if this were love, love was not so comfortable a feeling, after all. It was a profound uneasiness, that uprooted every settled habit of his spiritual being. It was, he told himself, before he fell asleep, a funny thing, love!
"Help those that need help."
The next morning while Doug was feeding in the corral, his father hitched a team to the hay wagon. Just as he prepared to climb over the wheel, Judith came out, ready for her ride to the Days' ranch, where she was to spend the day.
"Say, Jude," called John. "I want Doug to go to the old ranch after some colts. You come with me and help feed. I'm going to get all I can out of you two until school begins again."
Judith crossed silently to the wagon and climbed aboard. Douglas dropped his pitchfork and walked deliberately toward the fence. As he climbed it, he said, "Judith, you aren't going. You keep your date with Maud." He dropped from the fence to his father's side.
John turned to him with a look of entire astonishment.
"Jude's growing up, as you say," explained Douglas heavily. "If you aren't going to look out for her, I am."
"O, you are! And why?" demanded his father.
"Because!" replied Doug. "Jude, you get down and get started on Swift."
Astonishment, amusement, anger, pursued their way across the older man's face. Judith put out her tongue at her brother.
"Chase yourself, Doug Spencer! You're not my boss, you bet!"
John put his foot on the hub. "Good-by, Doug; I hope you recover from your insanity by to-night."
Douglas put an unsteady hand on his father's shoulder. "She can't go with you, Dad!"
His father struck him roughly aside. Douglas ran around the wagon. Judith was sitting on the edge of the rick. He reached up, pulled her into his arms, ran her into the feed shed, turned the key in the padlock and put the key in his pocket. As he turned, his father met him with a blow between the eyes. Mary Spencer appeared on the doorstep, pale and silent.
It was but the work of a moment to subdue the boy, and to unlock the door.
"Get into the wagon, Judith!" ordered John.
Douglas strode uncertainly to his father's side. "Judith, you go get on your horse!"
The young girl stood staring at the two, something impish in the curl of her lips, something wistful and unafraid and puzzled in her beautiful gray eyes. Back of the two men lay the unblemished blue white of the snow-choked fields and in awful proximity to these, Dead Line Peak flung its head against the cloudless heavens. Judith looked from the Peak to father and son as though deliberately appraising them. John, with ashen hair, with bloodshot eyes and the tell-tales lines from nose to lip corner, but handsome, dominating, choleric, with his reputation as a conqueror of women, as a subduer of horses, as a two-gun man. Douglas, with his thatch of gold blowing in the cold morning air, thin, awkward, only a boy but with a spirit glowing in his blue eyes that Judith never before had seen there. The girls of Lost Chief were sophisticated almost from the cradle. Judith could interpret the lines in her stepfather's face. But she did not know what the strange light in Douglas' eyes might mean. Suddenly she sprang to Swift's back and put her to the gallop.
"You know what to expect when you come back, miss!" roared John.
But Judith did not seem to hear. Spencer turned to his son. "Now, sir, you go into the house and get the whip!"
Douglas did not stir. "You aren't going to whip me any more, Dad. If you want to fight me, put up your fists."
Mary Spencer ran through the snow toward the two. "Don't fight him, John! Don't! He's just a child!"
John whirled at her with his fists raised. Douglas jumped before his step-mother and caught the blow on his raised elbow.
"And that'll be about enough of that, too, Dad!"
John caught his breath, then poured out a string of oaths and invectives, ending with, "Now before I thrash the cussedness out of you, young fellow, what excuse have you got to put up?"
"I haven't any." Douglas was still pale and his voice broke, childishly. "Only, all of a sudden it seems cowardly to me for you to hit Mother. She's not a child. You haven't got the excuse that you're training her. And you know she can't hit you. You're a good fighter, but I notice you don't hit Peter Knight or Charleton Falkner, any time they peeve you a little. It was all right to lick me and Jude when we were little. But now I warn you. I'm going to hit back. And you got to leave Judith and her mother alone."
John Spencer stood staring at his son. Twice he raised his heavy fist to strike him. Twice he dropped it. Douglas, still pale and trembling, wondered at his own temerity. He always had been so terribly afraid of his father!
"So you don't intend to obey me any more!" sneered John.
"Sure I do," replied Douglas. "Only I'm not going to be licked into doing things blind, and I'm going to take care of Jude."
John uttered a contemptuous oath.
Doug swallowed with an effort but his steady temper was well under control and he went on, "I'd like to be as good a rider and rancher as you are and handle a gun as good as you do, but I'm hanged if I want my woman to be as scared of me as Mother is of you."
"Think yourself a man, eh? Well, I'll tell you, young fellow, as long as you live in that house, there, you'll obey and take the lickings I give you. My father built that house and I was born in it and so were you. Hemen come from our breed and only a sissy refuses to obey. I may not be as well educated as my ancestors back East were, but I'm just as well trained as any of 'em and you're going to be too. We Spencers boss our own households. Go get me that whip!"
"No, sir, I won't do it," replied Douglas, a steady burning light in his eyes.
"You mean you'll stand up to me and fight after you saw the way I could handle you a few minutes ago?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
For a long moment there was silence, while Mrs. Spencer twisted her hands together and Doug and his father stared at each other. Then John gave a short laugh.
"By Sitting Bull! if you haven't got nerve, Doug! Go saddle Buster and get up to the old ranch after those three-year-olds." Then he climbed into the hay wagon, shouted at the team and was off.
Douglas' lips parted. The color returned to his face. Then he sat down weakly on the lower bar of the buck fence and burst into tears, and he was more frightened by his own tears than he had been by his father's anger. Mary Spencer knelt in the snow before him and tried to pull his head to her shoulder.
"Doug! Doug! You are a man!" she whispered. "You are a man!"
Douglas struggled heavily with the strangling sobs and after a moment sat erect and embarrassed.
"Douglas, what happened? How did you come to do it?"
"Something he said to Jude last night scared me," mumbled Doug.
Mary tightened her hold on the boy's arm. "I've been so afraid! So afraid! And no one to talk to!"
"Haven't you ever warned Jude about it?" demanded Douglas, with a sudden sensing of a debt mothers owed to daughters that Mary might not be discharging.
Mary shrank. "O, I couldn't, Doug!"
Douglas looked at her scornfully. "I don't see why that isn't your job."
Mary rose from her knees. She twisted her work-scarred hands together and looked at the boy with pathetic wistfulness.
"Don't you see, Doug, that I couldn't make her understand? She's still such a child she'd just laugh at me."
"Child!" scoffed Douglas, forgetting his own previous estimate of Judith. "She knows a whole lot more than you do!"
Mary laughed drearily. "Now you're talking like a child!" Then her voice cleared with unwonted purposefulness. "No one who hasn't been married can possibly understand men, or fear them or despise them, like they ought to be feared and despised. When I think what I was before I married and what I am now, I feel like I wanted to put Judith where she never could see a man. It's not right that a woman should suffer so. It's not right to lose all your dreams like I've lost mine. Marriage was never meant to be so."
Douglas scowled in his astonishment. Mary had been feeling like this all along when he'd been thinking of her as without nerve! Here, then, was somebody else lonely, like himself and Judith.
"I'm sorry, Mother," he said awkwardly. "I'll do what I can to change it."
"You can't do anything, my dear. What I'm suffering is in the nature of things."
"Well, anyhow, you ought to warn Jude," repeated Douglas.
"I can't!" said Mary. "Doug, if I do she'd guess how cowardly I am and how I suffer—in my mind, I mean," and she put her hands over her face with a dry sob.
Douglas put his long young arm about her. "I'll take care of it for you," he said huskily. "Judith don't know it but she's got somebody besides old Peter ridin' herd on her now. And you know I'm some little old herder, Mother!"
"I know you're a man!" exclaimed Mary. "The kind of a man that's mighty scarce in Lost Chief Valley." She turned away toward the house.
Douglas picked a bridle from the fence and started after Buster.
It was nearly supper time and Doug and his father were reading in the living-room when Judith returned. The wind had risen and fine particles of snow sifted under the eaves and over the table. The wood stove glowed red hot and the smell of cedar mingled with that of frying beef in the kitchen.
Judith, without waiting to take off her mackinaw, cheeks scarlet, eyes brilliant, stood before her father.
"Here I am, Dad."
John looked up from his book. "Have you milked yet?"
"Go out and do it."
"I want to know if you're going to lick me, Dad?"
"What did I promise you, last night?" he demanded.
"Do you mean to keep that promise?" asked Judith.
"Go out and tend to your milking!" roared John, rising to his feet and throwing the book across the room. "Get out of my sight, you little fool, you blankety-blank—" But Judith had fled and Douglas retired to the kitchen.
Supper was a silent affair. But that evening when the family had gathered under the lamp to read, Douglas said, "Scott Parsons wants me to take the mail stage for him Wednesday."
"Where's he going?" asked John.
"Out after his registered bull. It's strayed again."
"Huh!" grunted John. "Are he and Oscar Jefferson still fighting over that bull?"
"I guess so," replied Douglas. "Can I go, Dad?"
"It will put the dehorning off another day, but I guess you can go. That extra money will come in handy. How would you like to drive the mail regularly next winter, Douglas?"
The boy tossed "Treasure Island" on the table. "Do you mean you'd let me have it?"
"What would you do with the money?"
Judith spoke. "I know what I'd do. I'd put half the money into books. The other half I'd use to buy me some buckers and I'd go into training as a lady bronco buster."
Everybody laughed, and Mrs. Spencer said, "You won't have time to keep your nose in a book if you start in that line, Judith!"
"I'll always read," retorted Judith loftily.
"I'd buy me a silver-mounted saddle and silver spurs," said Douglas, "and that dapple gray of Oscar Jefferson's and a good greyhound, and I'd go into the wild horse catching business."
John groaned. "We've sure-gawd got an ambitious pair of kids here, Mary! What about the money you get from this trip, Doug?"
"Will you let me keep it?" asked Douglas, eagerly.
"I'll see!" John picked up his book again.
"Let me go with you, Doug!" pleaded Judith.
"Nothing doing!" exclaimed her stepfather succinctly. "You go to bed now before you get me aggravated."
Judith tossed her head but obediently retired to her corner of the room, undressed and crawled into her bed. Douglas was not long in following her example.
It was about eight o'clock Wednesday morning and twenty below zero when the mail buckboard driven by Douglas took the rising trail from Black Gorge eastward over the Mesa Pass. The snow was heavy and the trail only indifferently opened. To add to the difficulties, Scott had hitched Polly, a half-broken mule, to the stage in place of the mare who had gone lame. James, the remaining horse, was steady, however, and Douglas had only a moderate amount of trouble until the long steep grade up to the Pass began. Here, after a quarter of an hour of reluctant going, the mule balked. James did what he could to pull her along, Douglas plied the blacksnake; but to no avail. When she finally did move it was to lie down with deliberate slowness. Douglas jumped out into the drifts and by risking his life among her agitated legs he managed to get her up. An hour passed in the intense cold before she finally was harnessed and meekly pulling more than her share.
At the top of the Pass, Douglas drew up to breathe the team. Bleak, snow-covered rocks rose on either side of the trail, but opening beyond, snow-topped ranges in rainbow tints gleamed against a sky of intensest blue. Behind him, as he turned to look, lay Lost Chief Valley, with blue clouds rolling from the tops of Dead Line and Falkner's Peaks. Douglas shivered and urged the team on. But the mule again balked, and as Doug gathered up the whip a gruff voice cried, "Hold up your hands!"
A six-shooter in a mittened fist appeared over a rock heap at the roadside.
Douglas blanched, then looked keenly at the mitten. "Come out of that, Jude! Darn it, I thought you'd gone to Grandma Brown's!"
Judith led Swift from behind the rock, and mounted. Her eyes were bright with mischief.
"You turn right round and go home again, miss!" he cried, as Swift ranged beside the buckboard.
Judith giggled. "You sure do need a hazer, Doug, while you're driving that mule! I left a note for Mother."
"Go home! Don't speak to me. This is no trip for a girl!"
"You mean you want me to go home and help Dad feed the two-year-olds?" demanded Judith.
Douglas glared at her. For all the biting cold, her old knit cap was hanging to the pommel, her mackinaw was open at the throat. Her cheeks were deep scarlet, her gray eyes half filled with tears.
Douglas scrowled and his mouth settled into sullen lines. This was a man's trip. Judith had no business to make it seem easy enough for a girl! And with this new feeling for Judith, she was making the adventure too difficult. Hang it all! The place for a girl was at home! But he knew Jude and he was not going to try to repeat the triumph of Monday morning. He called to the team and started on.
Judith, having won her point, dropped behind the buckboard and the journey continued in silence. They reached the half-way cabin late in the afternoon. The little log hut, with a rude horse shelter beside it, stood in a clump of cedar close beside the trail. The snow was fresh trampled, for the up stage had left at three o'clock. Judith and Douglas were very cold. They hastily unharnessed, broke the ice at the little spring and watered the horses, then rushed into the cabin. There was a bunk, covered by soiled and ragged quilts, a table, a few cooking utensils, and boxes for seats. They lighted a candle and unearthed canned beans, coffee, and canned brown bread from beneath the bunk. After he had eaten his supper, Doug grinned for the first time.
"Forgiven me, huh?" asked Judith.
Douglas nodded. "It would be darned lonely without you. You'd better get to bed, Jude."
"Who gets the bunk?" asked Judith.
"You of course!" Douglas' voice was suddenly harsh again.
Judith sat down on the edge of the bunk. In the uncertain light of the candle she looked all eyes.
"Doug, what is the matter lately? I never know when you're going to take my head plumb off."
"Oh, shut up, can't you! I don't see why girls can't let a fellow alone!"
"Tell me, Doug: Why did you keep me from going with Dad on Monday morning?"
Douglas straightened up, his back to the stove, scowled, sighed, then said, "I feel like I wanted you to be like the girls in books and not like these wild women round here. And if you don't know what I mean, you are a fool."
"Douglas Spencer, you know I'm just as good as any girl that ever lived in any book!"
"I know that, and I propose to keep you so." Doug lighted a cigarette.
"Since when were you so interested, I'd like to know?"
"That is none of your business. Only, from now on you toe the mark, miss."
"You're not my boss, Doug Spencer!"
"Yes, I am," returned Douglas serenely. He finished making up a bed on the floor, rolled himself in two of the quilts and pulled the corner of one over his head.
Judith put out her tongue at his muffled form and crept under the quilts that remained on the bunk. By and by the moonlight appeared through the window. The stove grew cold. The howling of the coyotes circled nearer and nearer. Suddenly a rifle-shot rung out, then another. The shots did not waken the sleeping boy and girl, but the mule brayed and began to kick with the rapidity of machine-gun fire. They both jumped up and ran out. The mule was just disappearing across the trail. Douglas jumped on Swift's bare back, catching the lariat from the saddle that lay on the manger.
"I'll come too, on James!" cried Judith. "I'll ride to the right!"
Douglas urged Swift through the drifts, circled a cedar grove, and saw the mule stop to sniff at a horse which stood beside a dark heap in the snow. Judith appeared around the opposite side of the grove and the mule dashed away. They both hurried toward the quiet heap on the ground. A man lay in the drifts, his rifle beside him. It was Oscar Jefferson, with blood running out of his temple into the snow.
"Is he dead?" whispered Judith, crowding James up against Swift.
"I guess so. Must have been the shot that scared the mule. Come on, Judith! We've got to get him into the cabin, somehow."
Judith began to cry. "I couldn't touch a dead man, Douglas!"
Douglas' own lips were very uncertain in the moonlight but he answered, firmly enough, "We've got to do it. The coyotes will get him here."
"They'll say we shot him!" sobbed Judith.
Doug gave a start. "They sure-gawd will! What shall we do, Jude?"
"Go off and leave him and say nothing about it."
"With our horses' tracks all round him! You're crazy! Anyhow, we couldn't go off and leave a neighbor like this. 'Tisn't Lost Chief manners."
"All right." Jude wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "Let's put the lariat round his feet and let Jeff's horse pull him to the cabin. It won't hurt him in the soft snow."
"Nothing will hurt him any more, poor old Jeff," said Douglas.
He dismounted and moved toward the body. Then, with teeth chattering audibly, he tied the lariat round Jeff's feet and told Jude to get on to the saddled horse.
"Guide him easy. I'll walk and lead the other horses and see that nothing goes wrong."
Still whimpering, Judith obeyed, and the strange little procession moved toward the cabin. When they reached the shed, Doug loosened the lariat. "Judith," he said, "the best thing we can do is to put him in the buckboard and take him home."
"I'm so afraid of a dead man, Doug!"
"So am I. But it's only poor old Oscar, after all, who's been our next-door neighbor all our lives. We can't leave him here alone, like a dead horse. We'll take him home. That's what Dad or any of the men would do. Come on, Jude."
They established poor Oscar on the floor of the buckboard, among the mail bags. They hitched up James and Oscar's big black, and tied Swift to the tail end. All this time the moon shone coldly on the white hills, and the coyotes howled nearer and nearer.
"Cover him deep with the quilts, Doug," whispered Judith. "I'm going to make up a pot of hot coffee, before we start."
"How about that mule?" whispered Douglas.
"Let it go plumb to hell!" returned Judith. "Scott's the one should have been shot, for sending you out with such a brute!"
"If it hadn't been for the mule, we'd never have found him," muttered Douglas.
It was not much after eleven when the two, huddled together on the seat of the buckboard, started back for Lost Chief. The cold was so intense that they were obliged to take turns driving. When the road permitted, they walked until even their hardy lungs demanded rest. Then they huddled together again, their knees touching the dashboard, lest Oscar's poor dead feet should thrust against theirs.
They talked very little except to guess as to the probable name of the murderer. Toward dawn, when the moon had set and Douglas was trusting the trail to the horses, he said:
"Do you remember at the schoolhouse Sunday, when Charleton said he didn't believe in a hereafter, old Jeff chimed in and said, 'Me too'?"
"I remember," replied Judith.
"What do you suppose Jeff thinks about it now?"
"He ain't thinking. He's gone. There's no hereafter. Dad says so." Judith huddled still closer.
"Isn't it horrible!" shuddered Douglas. "Horrible!"
Judith began to cry again. "If there was just a heaven," she sobbed, "I wouldn't mind living or dying either."
"Well, there isn't any." Douglas heaved a great sigh. "I wonder if they hang kids as young as us for murder?"
"Let them try hanging me, just once! That's all I've got to say!" exclaimed Judith stoutly, in spite of her chattering teeth. "The worst I ever did to Oscar Jefferson was to play bucking bronco on that old milch cow, Jinny, of his. And she sure-gawd could buck! But I was only a little girl then and I can prove it."
"Looks as if we might be in real trouble to me!" muttered Douglas.
"It's growing daylight and there's the Pass, at last!" suddenly cried Judith.
Douglas drew a deep breath and urged on the weary horses.
It was full nine o'clock when the team drew up at the post-office door. At Doug's halloo, Peter Knight appeared. Sister crowded out the door past him, pricked her ears forward and ran to sniff at the rear of the buckboard.
"What on earth brings you back at this hour?" demanded Peter.
"Trouble!" Douglas moistened his frost-cracked lips. "Oscar Jefferson was shot last night. We got his body here."
"Who shot him?" asked Peter.
"We don't know."
"Where was it? Here, Sister, get back in the house!" Peter jerked the door wide.
Judith answered. "Up beyond the cedars, across from the half-way house. We found him while we were hunting for that devilish old mule."
Peter looked keenly at the two haggard young faces, then he said, "You two come in and eat and get warm. I'll do some telephoning."
"I want to get home to my mother," half sobbed Judith.
"Sha'n't we take him on to his house?" asked Douglas.
Peter replied impatiently, "You know he was baching it alone while young Jeff's in California. You come as I tell you!"
Stiffly the two stumbled out of the stage and into the warmth of Peter's quarters. He had just begun his own breakfast and, at his orders, Douglas and Judith devoured it while Peter went to the telephone. In an incredibly short time John Spencer and Frank Day, the sheriff, galloped up to the door. To them and to Peter, the young people told their story.
The sheriff asked a number of questions. After he had finished Douglas queried anxiously:
"You ain't going to try and put it on us, Frank?"
Frank grinned. "Well, I might, if the suspicions I have as to another party prove wrong."
"Don't torture 'em, Frank!" protested Peter. "They've been through a good deal for kids."
"Scott Parsons was the only rider in the valley who didn't like Oscar," said John. "That war they've had for two years over the bull was bound to end in trouble. I warned Oscar."
"Oscar was more to blame than Scott," said the sheriff. "He was the meanest man for hanging out on a fool thing I ever knew. And I'm just as fond of Oscar as the rest of you. What was a bull to Oscar! He could buy a dozen of 'em. Scott hasn't a thing on earth except wages for riding and that mangy little herd of slicks he's picked up."
"Picked up is right!" grunted John. "That bull, whoever it belonged to, is standard bred."
"Scott was born with a nasty temper." Peter spoke thoughtfully. "He told Oscar in front of me he would get him. That was about two weeks ago."
"Did Oscar tell any one he was going anywhere?" asked the sheriff.
"Not me," said Peter. "Why not let the kids go home?"
"Sure," agreed Frank. "You've done a good night's work, you two. Get some sleep now."
"You'll find Buster tied to my saddle, Doug," said John. "Judith, can Swift still move?"
"You bet she can!" replied Judith.
There was a laugh, and the two young people gladly mounted and trotted into the home trail.
Oscar's wife had long been dead. His son was on a cattle-buying trip and could not be reached. Oscar had been one of the richest men in the very well conditioned valley, so, instead of taking the body up to the lonely ranch house, it was laid out in state in the post-office.
Grandma Brown always officiated at deaths and births in Lost Chief. After it was found impossible to get in touch with young Jeff and after the sheriff had made a three days' investigation, she ordered the funeral to take place at once.
"We could pack him down in the ice till a thaw opens up the cemetery a little," suggested Charleton Falkner. "You know what a god-awful job it is making a grave in the cemetery in winter, between the frost and the rocks."
"He's going to be buried now, while he's in good trim," declared Grandma. "I'm not going to have him ruined, waiting for spring. You men get to work now, in shifts, like you did for old Ma Day."
Grandma's word was law in Lost Chief, and the grave forthwith was prepared. John Spencer, Peter Knight, and Charleton Falkner were appointed by the old lady to do the work, and Douglas accompanied his father. Old Johnny Brown appeared while the work was in process.
The cemetery was fenced in, but except for a few simple headstones and monuments, it was unadorned.
"Queer the women folks have never fixed this place up a little," said Peter Knight, standing waist-deep in the grave, with John. "Most places I've been, women keep the graves like they would a little garden."
Charleton Falkner, resting on a neighboring headstone, smiled sardonically. "Lost Chief women have enough to do without dolling up graves."
Cold sweat stood on Doug's forehead. He stared from the gaping grave to the murmuring line of pines that marked the end of the cemetery and the beginning of the Forest Reserve, and shuddered. He had not been sleeping well since the night of the murder. Johnny Brown, small and very thin, with a scraggly iron-gray beard hung with little icicles and his blue eyes watering with the cold, moved away from the headstone against which he had been resting after his turn in the grave.
"That boy," he said, jerking his elbow at Doug, "will be massified for many a year for driving the preacher out of Lost Chief."
"How do you mean—massify!" demanded Doug, gruffly. Johnny might be half-witted, but his remarks were curiously penetrating sometimes.
"I mean massify," grunted Johnny.
Peter Knight heaved a great frosted boulder out to the ground level.
"Charleton," he said slowly, "doesn't the thought of lying in a forgotten grave give you dumb horrors?"
"Sometimes," replied Charleton laconically, as he beat his cold hands together. "But only sometimes."
Douglas strained forward in the intensity of his interest.
Douglas' father straightened his broad shoulders. "If I let myself think about it, I have to go out and get drunk," he muttered.
"You don't conject right about them things," cried Johnny. "You got to listen to things."
No one heeded the sad-faced little man. Peter stooped for another frozen clod. "I'd give my right hand for my mother's faith in a living God," he said.
"But if there isn't any God, what is there?" cried Douglas, with passionate protest in his voice.
"Don't you try to discuss matters you ain't old enough to understand, son," ordered John Spencer.
"Unbelief is the price we pay for scientific progress," said Charleton. "Me, I'm willing to pay."
"I'm not," growled Peter, "but I don't see any way round it. Come on, Johnny, do your share."
"I ain't going to dig any more," declared the little man. "You all say I ain't all here, and the part that ain't here is the part that works. Sabez?"
"And," Johnny went on, seriously, "I ain't sure it's a good idea to plant 'em so deep. It takes a long time to grow up to heaven. It's a gregus far away place."
"Right you are, Johnny, old man," agreed Peter. "It sure is gregus far away."
Nobody urged Johnny to return to the job and the rest of the work was finished in silence.
That afternoon the funeral took place. There were services at the post-office, where any one who wished spoke in praise of the dead man. There were many speeches and it was late afternoon when the funeral cortege reached the cemetery. The Forest Reserve was mysterious with shadows and with the unending murmur of the pines. Snow gleamed blue over the valley. The saddle horses and teams were hitched to the stout fence that surrounded the cemetery, and Lost Chief Valley crowded about the open grave.
John Spencer drove Mary down in the old bobsled but Judith and Douglas rode Swift and Buster as usual. Judith had been nervous and irritable ever since the trip to the half-way house, but she had refused to admit that the murder had anything to do with her state of mind. She had a boyish horror of admitting to fears, mental or physical. She stood opposite Douglas, with a round beaver cap pulled down over her curly hair, her cheeks not so red as usual, her dark eyes rimmed and puzzled. Douglas wondered what she was puzzling over and resolved that after the ceremonies were over, he would ask her.
Douglas could not know with what intensity his deep-set eyes turned from Judith and fastened upon Grandma Brown, who stood at the head of the grave. There was a contented assurance in the old lady's manner that was vaguely comforting to the boy. He wondered what she knew that his father and Peter and Charleton did not know.
As the coffin was lowered into the grave, Grandma said, "Does anybody feel like saying a few last words?"
There was a silence broken only by the murmur of the Forest, then Johnny Brown cleared his throat. "I might say a whole lot of things. I wasn't so goldarned proud of Oscar like the rest of you seemed to be. He had a gregus kind of a temper and oncet—"
Grandma turned on him. "Johnny Brown, ain't you ashamed of yourself!"
"No, I ain't! You say I ain't all here, and the part that I'd be ashamed with is the part that's gone," returned Johnny firmly.
Judith gave an irrepressible snort, then fastened solemn eyes on the sky. A restless clearing of throats swept the little assemblage; then Grandma, indignation still in her kind old voice, spoke once more.
"Can't any of you men that knew Oscar all his life say something comforting before you close his grave?" she urged. "Then I'll try to do it. I was brought up religious, myself." She lifted her serene old face to the evening sky. "O God, this man wandered far from You like all the rest of us here. But an old woman like me believes You're there and that you know Oscar hadn't a really bad hair in his head. Take his soul, Lord, and be as good to him as You can. I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, even though he die, yet shall he have Eternal Life."
The tears were running down many cheeks when the old lady finished. Foolish old Johnny laughed, then he began to sing a hymn in which several of the women joined.
"God be with you till we meet again, By his counsels guide, uphold you, With his sheep securely fold you, God be with you till we meet again."
And so the earthly career of Oscar Jefferson ended.
THE GRADUATION DANCE
"Horses, dogs, guns, women, whiskey, the open country of the Rockies—enough for any man."
Instead of riding home with Judith, after the ceremony, Douglas, on sudden impulse, took a roundabout way to the post-office, thence toward the Browns' ranch. Dusk was settling in the valley. The quivering aspens along Lost Chief creek were etched gray rose on the deep blue snow. Far to the east a single scarlet mountain-top pierced through the twilight blue. Buster loped swiftly through the swimming landscape.
When he reached the post-office Douglas did not stop but rode on along Black Gulch trail to the Browns'. Grandma, returning by the direct route from the cemetery, had been home for a half-hour before Doug arrived. She was coming out of the cow stable, lantern in hand, when the boy dismounted at the corral. Spurs clanking, brave chaps flapping, Douglas ran to her like a child and caught her apron in his gauntleted hand.
"Grandma! Tell me something! Did you believe what you said at the grave?"
The old lady held the lantern up to his face. "Come into the cow stable out of the wind, Doug."
Within the dim shelter she hung the lantern on a nail and sat down on a box, indicating another to the young rider.
"Yes, I believed it, boy. Didn't you?"
"No, Grandma! And none of the men do that count in this valley. Is it just old woman stuff, like they say?"
"Maybe!" sniffed Grandma.
"And if you believe it," Doug rushed on, "why did you let us run the preacher out?"
"O, the preacher! Pooh! He's nothing but a blankety blank sissy like the rest of the sky pilots!"
"But can't I believe like you do, Grandma? I'm just the unhappiest guy in the world!"
"You mean," the old lady spoke deliberately, "that this is the first funeral you've seen that's set you to thinking and the fear of death is on you for the first time. I hope it'll do you good, Doug. You're an awful rough little devil."
Douglas swallowed audibly. "Grandma," he cried passionately, "how can I get to believe what you do?"
Grandma looked thoughtfully from her plump milch cow to the lantern, and from the lantern to Douglas. "Doug, I don't think you can, living among the folks you do. To have my kind of faith, you've got to have a mother that breeds it in you from the time you're a baby."
Douglas, his face looking absurdly young above his broad shoulders, said despairingly, "I don't believe you want to help me."
"Well," Grandma was still deliberate, "I don't believe a wild young devil like you really wants help. You're just scared."
Douglas rose, drawing himself to his full height. He was deeply offended. "I thought you might understand me!" he exclaimed. He strode out to Buster and galloped home.
It was extremely difficult to find a moment alone with Judith in the two-room cabin; but the chores were late that night and Judith, instead of helping her mother with the supper preparations, went out to milk, and so Doug's second interview that evening was in the cow shed, for when he reached the home corral, Judith had not finished her task.
This time, he was not precipitate. He sauntered into the little stable with a manner of large leisure.
"Hello, Douglas! Finished feeding?"
"No. I just got back. What did you think of the funeral?"
"I'm not thinking of it at all."
"Jude, don't you believe there's any hereafter?"
"Doug, I don't want to talk about it."
"But, Judith, I'm lonely and I've got to talk to some one."
Judith turned an indignant face toward the tall boy. "Don't you suppose I'm lonely, too? What good does talk do? Religion is all right for little kids but you can't believe in fairy tales as you grow up."
"But what can we do?" insisted Douglas, the sweat breaking out above his lips again. "Doesn't the thought of no God, no hereafter, just paralyze you?"
"I tell you," repeated Judith obstinately, "I just don't let myself think about it."
"Then what's made you so cross ever since that night?"
Judith rose and set the brimming milk pail in a feed box. Her eyes, in the lantern light, widened with a horror so devastating that Douglas clutched the manger behind him.
"How did you know? Doug, that's it and there's no place to go for help because there isn't any help for that!"
The sudden revelation of her need roused Douglas. He moistened his lips and said, "We've got to harden ourselves to stand it, like the rest of 'em do. And when it gets too bad we can talk to each other about it. That'll help."
Judith clutched his arm as if she felt the need of touching a human being. Douglas did not stir but as he stood looking down at her a strange aching gladness at her nearness and at her splendid girlhood flooded the horror out of his thought.
"I'll carry the milk pail in for you, Jude," he said.
"Fudge!" she returned scornfully. "As if I hadn't carried it in every night for four years! You'd better do your feeding before Dad gets after you."
Douglas suddenly laughed and went out.
For a day or so he was haunted, particularly after he went to bed, by the thought of the grave scene and by the comments Grandma Brown had made. But Doug was only sixteen, after all, and shortly he was absorbed by other matters: the hunt for Scott Parsons, the preparations for the dehorning, and his new and thrilling and secret feeling toward Judith.
The search for Scott delayed the round-up only for a short time. A day or so after the funeral it snowed and removed the last chance of finding Scott's tracks. The cold was intense, and the job really belonged to Sheriff Frank Day, so the posse broke up after a few days and the dehorning was undertaken.
Early in the morning, half a dozen young riders helped Douglas and Judith to cut out of the great herd in the swamp field the steers in need of dehorning. In proportion to their strength, Lost Chief girls were as clever as the men in handling horses and cattle. Judith was easily the best of them. There was a fire and vim about her work, a wild grace, that the other girls lacked. Douglas, his vision sharpened by his new attitude toward Judith, thought she never had looked so handsome as she did this morning, in her beaver cap, her new scarlet mackinaw, curls flying, sitting the excited little Swift as easily as a boy.
Out of the circular corral led a smaller one. A cedar fire burned in the middle of the lesser enclosure. John Spencer and two helpers stood near the fire, saws at hand, searing-iron heating, tar-pot simmering. The herd bellowed in the outer corral. The riders, ropes in hand, sat with laughing faces turned toward Judith, who was to rope the first steer. Douglas wished that there were not so many of the riders with admiration in their eyes. Judith sat Swift lightly, edging mischievously now against one rider, now another. Swift bit Buster, who reared while Douglas swore laughingly. Magpies swooped from the blue spruce at the edge of the corral, black and white against pale blue. The cattle, all Herefords, red and white, milled about and lowed and tossed worried heads. The riders, sheepskin chaps flapping, bright neckerchiefs fluttering, shouted and cursed and fingered their lariats. Dogs, yellow dogs, black dogs, gray dogs, spotted dogs, continuously encroached from without the fence and were ordered or lashed away.
Suddenly Swift shot from the group of horses. Judith spun her lariat and a lusty young steer, well back toward the south fence, turned and stumbled. Swift sat back on her haunches, turned as she rose and leaped toward the dehorning corral. The bellowing steer was dragged backward, his left foot securely roped. He fell as they reached the gate and skidded helplessly on his side through the trampled yellow snow.
The men by the fire were ready. One of them perched on the steer's flank and freed the lariat, while another sat astride his neck and amidst a gush of blood sawed off the horns close to the head. John seared the stubs with the hot iron dipped in tar. The poor brute bellowed with fright and pain. Judith recoiled her lariat and made way for Jimmy Day, who slid up with a protesting heifer.
"'Jude!" he shouted. "You're the cow ropingest girl in the Rockies! Say, Jude, ain't you afraid that baa-baa you're riding will buck with you? Swift! What a hell of a name for that thing!"
"She can beat you roping 'em at that, Jimmy!" cried Douglas.
"Better ride light, Jimmy," warned John. "She thinks more of that mare than she does of me."
"All right, John," laughed Jimmy. "Take this heifer, fellows! She thinks she's a moose!"
"She'll think she's a kitten when we finish with her," chuckled John.
There was an uproar now in the two corrals that echoed from mountain to mountain. The trampled snow was crimson. White angora and sheepskin chaps were gaumed with thick clots of blood. The horses, half frantic from the smell of the bleeding cattle, tried every means in their not limited repertoires to bolt the hateful job.
The work had gone fast and furiously for some time when Douglas touched his father on the arm.
"Dad, look up on the shoulder of old Dead Line!"
John straightened his back and shaded his eyes. A rider leading a Hereford was coming down the ridge.
"That's Scott's horse, Grover," said Douglas. "Can you make out the rider?"
"Not yet." John continued to stare intently. Others noticed his posture and followed his gaze.
"It's Scott Parsons!" cried Charleton Falkner.
"Shall we go get him?" exclaimed Jimmy Day.
"No. He's starved out and giving up. Let's hear what he has to say," said John.
The dehorning went on. Half a dozen more bleeding steers had been turned out before Scott, weary, gaunt, haggard beyond words, leading an emaciated young bull, drew rein beside the smaller corral. The roping came to a pause. John twisted a lariat round the neck of a steer he was working on and led it to the fence. The others followed.
"Well, why the committee of welcome?" asked Scott hoarsely. His bloodshot eyes turned from one to another.
"Where'd you find the bull, Scott?" asked John.
"First located him on Fire Mesa. Been round about considerable since."
"Whose bull is it now?" Charleton Falkner pushed Democrat toward the fence.
"Mine!" Scott spoke shortly, his freckled face unmoved.
"Do you think it was worth the price?" demanded Spencer.
Scott looked searchingly at the crowd before him. The steer John was holding had been dehorned but not seared. The blood had run down the brute's white face and formed a crimson icicle on its under lip. John had run his fingers through his ashen hair, leaving it blood-smeared. Charleton was lighting a blood-stained cigarette with the hot searing-iron. Judith pounded her half-frozen ringers together.
"What price did I pay?" asked Scott.
"Doug," commanded John, "you tell your story."
Douglas, with considerable embarrassment and assisted by Judith, told of their trip with the mail stage. Scott listened with little apparent interest. He said nothing when the story was done.
"It's like this, Scott," said John. "It looks like you killed him. You've got a bad temper. So had Oscar. You fought for over a year about that fool bull, first one of you branding it, then the other. You're young and you'd better give yourself up. You'll stand a better chance."
"Go ahead, Scott!" cried Judith. "I'll stand your friend like you did mine when I rode old Oscar's milch cow 'most to death!"
"Shut up, Jude!" exclaimed Douglas.
"Go ahead, Scott," John half smiled. "You needn't worry. You have a friend!"
"A friend won't do him much good, if he's guilty," grunted Charleton Falkner.
"Anybody's better off for at least one friend," repeated Judith stoutly. "Darn it! All of you picking on poor old Scott!"
"Lean on me, Grandpa!" piped Jimmy Day.
Scott's haggard eyes focused on Judith. "I'll hold you to that, Jude! By God, you're the only white man in the valley! I came in to give myself up, Jude. The cold got me. I shot him, after he'd rebranded the bull before my eyes and after he'd given me this."
He ripped open his mackinaw and shirt and tore a rag from his shoulder, disclosing a vivid wound. "I ain't the only one that's quick on the trigger!"
There was a quick murmur among the riders. John and Charleton, the oldest men in the group, looked at each other.
"Charleton, you and Jimmy Day ride to Scott's house with him," said John. "I'll go to the house and telephone to the sheriff." He mounted and rode off.
"Can your horse carry you so far, Scott?" asked Judith.
Scott nodded, with something curiously like tears in his hard hazel eyes. "You take the bull, Jude," he said. "I'd like for you to have him. He's standard bred."
Judith's eyes shone like stars. "If Dad'll only let me! Do you think he will, Doug?"
Douglas shrugged his shoulders. The bull was tied to the fence and Scott rode slowly away with his escort. When John returned from telephoning he gave a grudging consent to Judith's taking the bull, and the dehorning went on. Not until the blue velvet shadow of Falkner's Peak lay heavy on the incarnadined corral and the last bellowing steer had found solace at the haystacks did the riders start homeward. Douglas followed Judith, as she led the scare-crow bull.
"He's a good mate for Swift," he said.
"You're just jealous!" retorted Judith.
"Of what?" demanded Douglas.
"Of me starting a herd before you do!"
"Ha! Ha!" ejaculated Doug, without a smile, and nothing more was said until they reached the house.
At supper that night John asked Judith why she had shown so much friendship for Scott Parsons.
"I was sorry for him," she replied.
"But he killed our old neighbor!" exclaimed John.
"Yes, and Oscar had a notch on his gun, Dad; and you have one on yours."
"We put those notches there in the early days," returned John, "when every cowman carried the law on his hip. It's different now. You're altogether too highty-tighty, Jude, for a girl. You keep away from Scott Parsons, or I'll make you regret it."
Judith made no reply.
Scott's trial took place in April. It was a matter of deep interest, of course, to Lost Chief, and every one who could get to Mountain City by horse, wagon, or automobile, attended the court sessions. Judith and Douglas were chief witnesses and were royally entertained by young Jeff, who had returned to Lost Chief a week or so after his father's funeral.
Scott was acquitted on the plea of self-defense but he did not return at once to Lost Chief. The attitude of young Jeff did not make an early return seem diplomatic.
Douglas, when he came home from the trial, had a curious feeling that the winter just passed had ended his boyhood. He did not know why. He was not old enough to realize that when the fires of desire and the fear of death begin to sear a boy's mind, adolescence is passing and manhood has all but arrived.
Judith, who had accomplished her fifteenth birthday in March, a day or so before Doug arrived at the dignity of seventeen, had changed too. She had been less profoundly affected by the murder than Douglas; not that she was less sensitive or intelligent than he, but she was far less introspective than her foster-brother. And Judith had two unfailing foods for all hungers of the mind. One was her love of reading, the other, her love of riding; both absorbing, to the elimination of self investigation.
Douglas read a great deal, himself. Books and magazines furnished the only mental stimulants in the valley and it was a surprisingly well-read community. But Douglas, caring for Judith as he did, found it impossible to become fully absorbed in his old pastimes. He was restless, moody and lonely as only youth can be.
He and Judith both graduated from the log school early in June. There was the usual graduation dance at the post-office at which, as usual, Peter Knight officiated. It was a heavenly moonlit night. The air was fragrant from the acres of budding alfalfa and full of the lift and tingle that can belong to June only in the high altitudes. The ever strong, steady west wind of Lost Chief summers swirled down the valley.
The hall was dimly lighted by a single kerosene lamp. Cigarette smoke mingled with the pungent smell of whiskey, which seemed to be the chief ingredient of a concoction in a large pail, under the lamp. In the corner opposite the pail was a phonograph over which Peter presided.
Everybody danced. Even the dogs were not prohibited the floor. Only when Sister started a fight with Prince did any one protest and the dogs were driven back, temporarily, under the benches.
The schoolgirls in their white dresses were, of course, the belles of the occasion. Lost Chief, living its intensive life of isolation, probably did not realize of what superb physique were the youngsters of its third generation. Jimmy Day devoted himself to Little Marion Falkner, aged fourteen. Marion was called little to distinguish her from her mother, also Marion. The daughter at fourteen was five feet ten inches in height, the mother an inch taller. Even a badly cut muslin dress could not fully conceal the fine breadth of Little Marion's shoulders nor the splendid length and straightness of her legs.
Jocelyn Brown, Grandma's grand-daughter, dancing frequently with Charleton Falkner, was at twelve only slightly shorter than Little Marion. She had the face of an angel, the vocabulary of a cowman, and was built of steel.
Inez Rodman, very fair and slender, easily five feet nine, was scorned by the older women but was brazenly popular with their husbands and the younger set of boys and girls.
Judith danced all the time but only occasionally with Douglas, who took her to task for her neglect.
"But, Doug, you and Dad are no novelty to dance with. What's the matter with you anyhow? You never used to want to dance with me."
"I'm just trying to keep you from dancing with all these roughneck riders." Douglas' chin was in the air above his bright blue silk neck scarf.
Judith's eyes swept him appraisingly. His white silk shirt hung loose on his thin, fine shoulders. His broad rider's belt, studded with blue enameled rings, encircled a waist almost as slender as Jude's own. His white duck trousers were turned up to display new riding boots, and his spurs, a graduation gift, were of silver and chimed at his slightest movement.
"You're almost as good-looking as Jimmy Day," she said with a sudden chuckle. "Run along, Doug. You aren't old enough to protect me from these bad men!" And she turned to dance with the waiting Jimmy.
It was nearing midnight when Douglas achieved his first dance with Inez. She was the best dancer in the room, and Douglas told her so.
"I'll bet you haven't told that to the other girls," she said with a flash of her white teeth.
"I have! I said it to Jude when she turned me down for Dad."
"Smart! Helps both you and me with Jude, of course!"
"Much you care about that!" retorted Douglas.
"I like to be liked, of course," said Inez.
"You do?" Douglas' voice was so honestly incredulous that Inez exclaimed resentfully:
"Am I so much worse than a lot of the kids at school?"
Douglas shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Judith's straight. I've kept her so."
Inez laughed. "Judith's straight because she's that kind of a girl. Why don't you watch your dad instead of Jude?"
Douglas' lips tightened and Inez studied his face in silence for a moment; then she went on, "Pretty fond of Jude, aren't you, Doug? Your father is a devil with women—that big, bossy, good-looking kind always is. I tell Jude so every time I see her."
"How often do you see her?" demanded Douglas quickly.
"I guess she has a right to come to my house as often as she wants to."
"No, she hasn't," brusquely.
Inez sniffed, then smiled. She had a frank and lovely smile. Douglas' face softened and they finished the waltz in silence.
Not all the music was of the cheaply popular variety. Between dances Peter slipped on occasional opera records. He was playing from Martha:
"Ah, so pure, so bright, Burst her beauty upon my sight, Ah, so mild, ah, so divine She beguiled this heart of mine."
when a man called from the open door, "Good evening, folks!"
"Why, it's Scott Parsons!" cried Grandma Brown.
There was a pause, during which the tender voice of the phonograph thrilled on. Young Jeff, his red face even redder than his visits to the pail would warrant, put his hand to his hip. Judith darted before him and ran the length of the room.
"Hello, Scott! Welcome home! The next dance is yours."
"No, it's not!" shouted John Spencer. "You let Judith alone, you blank young outlaw you!"
"Get out of my way, Jude!" shouted Young Jeff. "I told Scott not to come back to Lost Chief!"
He strode down the room, his hand still on his gun. Scott's hand had been equally quick. Peter Knight turned off the machine. "Hold on, Jeff!" he cried. "You turned Scott over to the law, and the law acquitted him. If you'd wanted to take things in your own hands, you should have done so before the trial. If you kill Scott, you're no better than he is."
"That's right!" cried Grandma Brown. "And your record ain't so clean, Young Jeff, that you can afford to start anything!"
Judith tossed her head. "I don't see why Young Jeff should be allowed to spoil a perfectly good party."
"If you can't put him out, Jude, I can!" cried Inez.
Everybody laughed. Jude seized one of Young Jeff's big hands, Inez the other. There was an uproarious scuffle which ended in the three, laughing immoderately, executing a hybrid folk dance to the one-step which Peter began to play. And Scott danced unmolested during the remainder of the night.
Charleton Falkner had drunk a good deal but was as yet little the worse for it. He and Douglas met at the pail shortly after midnight. Charleton gave the young man an amused glance.
"You look sort of bored, Doug! Come outside and talk a little."
Douglas gave a quick glance around the hall—at Judith, swooping in great circles with Scott Parsons, at Inez dancing with his father. "All right!" he said, and followed Charleton out into the moonlight. They perched on the buck fence and smoked for a time in silence.
"That's a good horse of Young Jeff's, eh?" said Charleton finally.
"Not as good as the dapple gray he gave me will be when I get time to break him," replied Douglas. "I don't know! I'm not as interested in things as I was."
"What's the matter?" asked Charleton, sympathetically.
"I guess Oscar's killing upset me," said Douglas vaguely.
"I don't suppose you ever heard of Weltschmerz," mused Charleton. "It's a kind of mental stomach-ache most young fellows get about the time they begin to fall in love."
"Though you were pretty young to run into Oscar that way," Charleton went on thoughtfully.
"It isn't that; though I was scared stiff, of course. But it was seeing Oscar laid in the ground to rot and hearing you and Peter and Dad say that was all there was to it."
Charleton nodded. "I know! But you'll reach my state of don't give a hoop-la, when you're a little older. Wine and women and a good horse. They help."
Douglas drew a shuddering breath. "Is that all you've found out? All?"
"Of course, there's ambition," said Charleton. "I was ambitious, myself, once. You know my father was a college man and he wanted me to go back East to school. I almost went."
"Why didn't you go?" asked Douglas, immensely flattered at the mark of confidence being shown him. Charleton Falkner was notoriously reticent about himself.
"O, it's this easy life of the open! Why should I have gone into politics as my father wanted me to, when I could be happier with an easy living right here? And it would all end up there in the cemetery, anyhow. And what had ambition to offer me in comparison to the sport of running wild horses on Fire Mesa, or riding herd in the Reserve or hunting deer on Falkner's Peak. Horses, dogs, guns, women, whiskey, the open country of the Rockies. Enough for any man."
"Maybe!" muttered Douglas.
"What are you going to do now you're through school?" asked Charleton abruptly.
"Ride for Dad. He's promised me a herd of my own when I'm twenty-one."
"Listen!" said Charleton. "How'd you like to do a little business with me once in a while when John can spare you? You know, cattle, horses and such!"
Douglas grinned delightedly. "Do you really mean it? Why, you know, Charleton, as well as I do, there isn't a young rider in Lost Chief who wouldn't give anything to go out on trips with you."
"Fine! I'll be tipping you the wink one of these days. In the meantime, keep your mouth shut to every one but your father. Come in and we'll have a drink on the new partnership."
Douglas had as yet acquired no great taste for such fiery pollutions as the pail contained. But Charleton now applied himself so strenuously to the business of getting drunk that shortly he was leaning on the phonograph and reciting with powerful lungs:
"'Tis but a tent where takes his one day's rest A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest; The Sultan rises and the dark Ferrash Strikes and prepares it for another Guest."
No one heeded him particularly. He smiled amiably at Peter, leaned farther on the machine, and said, "Somebody will have to ease me to my horse," then he drowsed forward over the phonograph. Douglas and Peter, laughing, eased him to his horse, and Charleton, his arms around Democrat's neck, jogged slowly off on the home trail.
June dawn was peering over the Indian Range when the party broke up. Scott disappeared with Judith. When John discovered this, he bolted after the two.
"You'd better go see that nothing happens, Doug," said Mary Spencer. "John's drunk too much."
"I'm going home," declared Douglas. "I got some pride, and Judith's treated me like a dog to-night. She's too fond of starting something she don't know the finish of."
Mary and he were riding alone in the dawn. "You promised me you'd look out for her. Don't you care for her any more, Douglas?"
"Yes, I do!"
"Have you ever told her so?"
"She's too young."
"No, she isn't, Douglas. You remember you told me she knew more than I do."
Douglas said nothing; and after a moment, his step-mother said, hesitatingly, "Doug, I hate to see you dancing so much with Inez."
"What harm was there in it?"
"I don't know that I can tell you, Doug. When I was a girl, going to the log schoolhouse, we girls never thought of touching whiskey. Our mothers would have killed us if we had."
"The world do move!" grunted Douglas.
"I don't believe it's the world. Not from the books I read. I think it's just Lost Chief. The old folks in my day had real influence in the valley. There were many like Grandma Brown. But now! Why, your father will never be the good influence his father was, and I'd never be like Grandma. I don't know why."
"You can't even train your own daughter," said Douglas with entire frankness.
"Can the other mothers?" asked Mary resentfully. "What can I do when the other mothers are so easy?"
"It ain't exactly easy." Douglas spoke thoughtfully. "The Lord knows, all the kids in Lost Chief work hard enough and get walloped enough."
Mary sighed deeply. Douglas watched her face, so like Judith's but bearing tragic lines it would have broken his heart to see around Judith's young lips. With unwonted gentleness he leaned over to put his hand on Mary's while he smiled at her half sadly.
"Poor Mother! We are an ornery lot! But you are as good as gold, and Jude and I both know it!"
Quick tears stung Mary's gray eyes. She lifted his hand to her cheek for a moment, then, as he drew it away, she tried to return his smile. But nothing more was said until they reached home.
Just as they entered the living-room, Judith rushed in,
"I hate Dad! I hate him! Scott and I were jogging home by way of the west trail as peaceful as anything when Dad has to come along and start a row going!"
"Anybody hurt?" asked Douglas, watching Judith as she sat down on the edge of her bed, big tears on her cheeks.
"No, but no thanks to Dad! Scott turned round and left because I asked him to. There's Dad now!"
John clanked in, but before he could speak Judith rose and shook her forefinger in his face.
"Now, Dad," she said steadily, "there's going to be no rowing and no cursing. I'm sick of it! Right here and now I warn you to stop interfering with me or I'll leave!"
John raised his ready fist.
"None of that!" Doug's voice was quiet. "Finish what you have to say, Jude."
John scowled, breathing heavily, his eyes never leaving Judith.
"I'm sick of it," she repeated. "There must be places in the world where there's something beside family rows."
"Are you through?" demanded John.
"Yes, I am."
"Then I've got one thing to say. You let Scott Parsons alone." John flung himself on the bed, and before Mary had taken off his spurred riding boots he was asleep.
Douglas went out to the corral where, soon after, Judith appeared with her milking pail. The tender pink mists rolled slowly away from the yellow wall of Lost Chief range. Judith, with heavy eyes and burning cheeks, looked from the mists to Douglas, who leaned on the fence and watched her.
"Jude," he said, "you are on the wrong foot. You ought to let whiskey and Inez Rodman alone."
"Why don't you let 'em alone?" demanded Judith.
"It's different with a man!"
"O, don't give me that old stuff!" cried the girl. "We women do men's work in this valley. We'll have the men's kind of fun if we want it!"